Public Concern for Private Funding

The source of research dollars is shifting. Will this affect the direction of academic research?

Jul 1, 2006
Ned Stafford
<figcaption> Credit: © CORBIS</figcaption>
Credit: © CORBIS

More money generally means more science, and vice versa. But the source of the money - whether from public or industry well-springs - may be as important in determining the type of research that gets funded as well as the direction that research may take. During the last several years, the percentage of industry funding relative to public funding has grown (see Box). For example, industry funding of clinical trials rose from $4.0 billion in 1994 to $14.2 billion in 2003 (in real terms) while federal proportions devoted to basic and applied research were unchanged, according to a study1 last fall in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This trend, according to some life science policy experts, threatens the independence of basic research. Others, however, see a move towards an increase in industry funding relative to public funding as a sign of the health of scientific enterprise.

"If institutions become too dependent on private funding sources, the academic research focus could move too heavily toward development," warns Robert Gropp, director of public policy at the American Institute of Biological Sciences in Washington. While this may be initially attractive to industry, he predicts that in the long term a decreased focus on basic science would strangle the free-thinking, creative research historically found in academia.

David G. Schetter, assistant vice chancellor at the office of technology alliances at the University of California, Irvine, is not only skeptical that increased industry funding would trigger a decline in support for basic research, but he also ascribes industry opening its coffers to basic research as a sign of the stronger connection between basic research and how drugs are designed and evaluated. In other words, it's an evolutionary development reflecting better science. "Increasing funding from the private sector for university trials reflects a greater dependency on university clinical scientists with close ties to basic scientists found only at universities," he says. "This reflects a growing insistence from the FDA for mechanism-based drugs and scientifically grounded assays. This is all very healthy and all leading to greater private-sector funding for university trials."

Schetter believes that an increase in industry funding would actually give academic scientists more say in clinical trial design. "If drug houses are spending more of their money on university trials, why would you conclude that university scientists have less control? I would reach the opposite conclusion. The universities have an ever greater role in saying what measures, and outcome predictions, will dictate the design of trials."

The Real Issue: Public Funding

While, theoretically, increased industry funding could harm basic research, allows Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, there is little risk of it actually happening, at least in the United States, he says. Industry funding for campus-based R&D has traditionally accounted for less then 10% of total US funding, he points out. "In fact, most universities seek more industry R&D funding in order to diversify from their overwhelming reliance on the federal government," he says. Universities are now more concerned that the National Institutes of Health seems to be moving away from basic research toward more applied tasks, especially in the areas of biodefense, vaccine development, and clinical research, he argues.

<figcaption>THE NUMBERS - INDUSTRY FUNDING ON THE RISE • Industry funding increased during the 1990s, and in 2001 rose above 50% of the total funding pie, according to a study earlier this year in the British Medical Journal (BMJ, 332:1061-4, May 6, 2006). This compares to the years between 1993 and 1997, when industry funding fluctuated between 20% and 30% of total funding. • Industry funding in randomized controlled trials increased during the 1990s. Of 32 frequently cited trials published after 1999, 31 received some industry funding, 18 exclusively so, according to the BMJ study. Proportion of frequently cited articles published each year according to sources of funding. Studies with funding from diverse categories of support are counted in all relevant categories. Credit: Source: N.A. Patsopoulos et al., " />
THE NUMBERS - INDUSTRY FUNDING ON THE RISE • Industry funding increased during the 1990s, and in 2001 rose above 50% of the total funding pie, according to a study earlier this year in the British Medical Journal (BMJ, 332:1061-4, May 6, 2006). This compares to the years between 1993 and 1997, when industry funding fluctuated between 20% and 30% of total funding. • Industry funding in randomized controlled trials increased during the 1990s. Of 32 frequently cited trials published after 1999, 31 received some industry funding, 18 exclusively so, according to the BMJ study. Proportion of frequently cited articles published each year according to sources of funding. Studies with funding from diverse categories of support are counted in all relevant categories. Credit: Source: N.A. Patsopoulos et al., "Origin and funding of the most frequently cited papers in medicine: database analysis," BMJ 332:1061-4, May 6, 2006.

Science projects requiring funding seem to be plentiful. While approximately 40% of total applications for research submitted to the NIH are approved as worthy of funding, only 10% to 20% receive NIH funding, notes Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, an Alexandria, Va.-based funding advocacy organization whose members include universities, companies, and foundations. The amount funded, however, may be dropping. While the NIH budget doubled between 1998 and 2003, the fiscal year 2007 budget is expected to be $28.6 billion, a 0.1% decrease from the previous year, or a 3.8% decrease after adjustment for inflation, according to a commentary2 in the April issue of the The New England Journal of Medicine. NEJM authors say this is the first budgeted reduction in NIH funding since 1970.

John Ioannidis, coauthor of a British Medical Journal article charting an increase in industry funding relative to public funding, also sees the heart of the issue as being the level of public funding rather than of industry's contribution. "There is nothing wrong with industry funding research, nor do I see the motives of the industry being against society," says Ioannidis. "However, I worry about the possibility that government funding drains, and researchers simply have to depend on the industry. Even the industry will lose if academic creativity and independence is strangled. Perhaps the industry would lose the most."

nstafford@the-scientist.com

Related Article:
An Ideal Balance
One institute's funding formula

References

1. H. Moses et al., "Financial anatomy of biomedical research," JAMA, 294:1333-42, 2005. 2. J. Loscalzo, "The NIH budget and the future of biomedical research," NEJM, 354:1665-7, April 20, 2006.